Stephen Thompson

After another year of extreme weather, it is clear governments around the world need to redouble efforts to promote greener energy, if we are to slow down the steady accumulation of environmental damage.

Most people may only be dimly aware of it, but fundamental changes are being wrought by massively networked computers and robotics, and they are transforming society.

Only a few years ago, parents were saying that children should not use computers until they came of age, but today schools require children to do homework online, bringing issues into the home we have to deal with.

China has developed a huge parallel internet sheltered by an electronic firewall known as the Great Firewall of China which blocks, filters and slows traffic on the internet. This significantly obstructs and impacts business, foreign trade and academic, social and cultural exchanges. However, virtual private networks (VPNs) have allowed Chinese web users almost unimpeded access to the internet with the additional benefit of anonymity.

Voice control of computers, a holy grail for nerds ever since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, is finally for the masses with the move to mobile computing.

Long-distance travellers live in fear of finding bank-busting phone bills on their return. Although we can switch sim cards on arrival, frequent number changes confuse contacts, and in some countries, getting online is not as easy as you might expect.

Since Mandiant, a US information technology security firm, sparked controversy by blaming a special unit of the People's Liberation Army for launching a series of cyberattacks on US companies, the shadowy world of hackers in China has been in the spotlight. Their activities have become a focal point of Sino-US relations.

Hackers range from children playing with computers to virtual hitmen, who destroy corporate data for a fee. Armies and governments also employ hackers to collect intelligence and secure their networks.

In the winter of 2009 to 2010, a mainland writer friend whose pen name is Zhao Dagong was arrested and detained by the security police. Zhao is vice-president and secretary of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, a group of banned mainland writers whose president is Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace laureate, currently serving an 11-year sentence for subversion.

An investigative report released recently by Mandiant, a US IT security firm, predictably sparked controversy by pinning the blame for a series of cyberattacks on US companies on Shanghai-based Unit 61398 of the People's Liberation Army.